The Way of All Flesh: Undercover in an industrial slaughterhouse.

Ted Conover, The Way of All Flesh. Harper’s, May 2013. Reprinted by by permission of the author.”Undercover in an industrial slaughterhouse.”

Excerpts from story:

Passing one by one through a small opening in the wall, each animal enters a narrow, slightly elevated chute. On a platform just above the chute is a guy called the knocker. Suspended on cables in front of him is something that looks like a fat toaster oven with handles on either side: a captive-bolt gun. The knocker’s job is to place the gun against the animal’s forehead and pull the trigger. Most of the time, the cow immediately slumps forward, blood oozing from the circle where the thick steel bolt went in and came out. If one shot doesn’t do the trick, the knocker does it again.

Meanwhile, down on floor level, a second worker wearing a helmet with a face mask and protective padding has reached into the chute from below and attached a cuff around the animal’s left rear leg. Once the cow has been knocked, the chain hoists that leg and then the rest of the animal up into the air, and the body begins its journey around the room.

Carolina and I watch this for some time without talking. The knocker moves slowly, patiently waiting for his gun to achieve good contact with the animal’s forehead. It usually takes more than one try, as the animals duck down or try to peer over the side of the chute, whose width the knocker can actually control with a foot pedal. One cow, unlike the others, lifts her head up high in order to sniff the knocking gun. What could this thing be? It’s her last thought. The knocker waits until her wet nose goes down, then lowers the gun and thunk. She slumps, then gets hoisted aloft with the others. The knocked animals hang next to one another for a while, waiting for the chain to start moving—like gondolas at the base of a ski lift. From time to time an animal kicks violently, sporadically. “They’re not really dead yet,” says Carolina, which I can hear because she’s close to my ear and it’s slightly less loud in here. In most cases, apparently, what she says is true and intentional: the pumping of their hearts will help drain the blood from their bodies once their necks are sliced open, which will happen in the ensuing minutes. By the time the chain has made a turn or two, the kicking will stop.

Dismemberment proceeds by degrees. At different posts, workers make cuts in the hide, clip off the hooves, and clip off the horns, if any. The hide is gradually peeled from the body, until finally a big flap of loose skin is grasped by the “downpuller” machine, which yanks the whole thing off like a sweater and drops it through a hole in the floor. Here, for the first time, the cow no longer looks like a cow. Now it’s a 1,200-pound piece of proto-meat making its circuit of the room.

Soon after, the heads, now dangling only by the windpipe, are detached from the body and go off on their own side chain. The huge tongues are cut out and hung on hooks adjacent to the heads: head, tongue, head, tongue. They turn a corner, pass through a steam cabinet that cleans them, make another quick turn, and meet their first inspectors….

[The viscera table], which comprises both Livers and Pluck [the hearts, still connected to the lungs], is the must disturbing, and the most interesting, on the kill floor. Just upstream, the skinned carcasses have had their tails cut off…. On this belt stand workers in white rubber boots, who use their knives to slice open the body cavity and “drop” the organs at their feet.

There’s a lot of steam (those innards are still hot) and splashing as the viscera hit the table with a plop. Using their gloved hands and booted feet, the workers nudge the big livers to one side of the table, and the pluck— the hearts, still connected to the lungs—to the other. A different worker, standing on the floor like us, flips and slides the massive livers so that they’re right side up and properly presented to us for inspection.

It’s a lot to take in, the river of organs flowing slowly by. The most dramatic parts, the large, bulbous stomachs in the middle, we’re supposed to look at and touch but not dissect: most are full of the animal’s last meal, generally corn but sometimes also hay—we see it on those occasions when the stomach gets nicked. We do gently prod a spot called the ruminoreticular junction, where the cow’s large first stomach meets the reticulum, a kind of filtering compartment. I’m not told what to look for, but I find something soon enough: a two-inch metal screw. Herb has explained that this part of the stomach “is like the bottom of a garbage pail”—the heavy, bad stuff settles here and sometimes gets stuck….